It’s been known for at least a decade that feeling a “sense of belonging” while at university can make or break students’ overall experience.
Posited as the key variable in whether students persist with their studies and are successful in the Higher Education Academy’s “What works?” student retention and success programme, sense of belonging is strongly associated with academic and social engagement while at university.
While theories of belonging and its relationship with socio-economic factors such as individual identity and relationships, geographical location, and social status are complex, the descriptive terms often used when discussing “belonging” will resonate with anyone: “connectedness”, “feeling valued”, “feeling accepted”.
Humans as a species – and perhaps those in transitional and developmental states, such as those in education, more than most – gain a cognitive and psychological dividend from feeling a sense of belonging, and unpleasant emotional consequences such as alienation, depression, and anxiety when they do not feel they belong.
In the field of education studies, there has been research into the ways that “belongingness’ is produced and sustained in various pedagogical contexts, as well as the role it can play in policing boundaries and reinforcing inequities among different social groups.
But it’s not always very clear what those responsible for supporting student success – university leadership, academic and student support staff, students’ unions – can do to foster a sense of belonging in students.
Over the last decade there has been a great deal of progress in better understanding the higher education experiences of different student groups, particularly those from marginalised, minoritised, or less advantaged backgrounds. There has also been an increasing focus on mental health and wellbeing across higher education, which recognises the affective dimension of learning, and the association between emotional state and student success.
Student futures are about belonging
During the Covid-19 pandemic, these questions became more urgent, as the experience of disconnection, disengagement, and loss of academic confidence became much more widespread.
This is not to say that universities and students’ unions did not do their utmost to sustain a sense of connection at a very difficult time – in fact, the sector saw enormous levels of innovation in the delivery of online learning, teaching and student services. These experiences were a function of rolling lockdowns, societal uncertainty, and personal loss and grief, and produced a particular set of outcomes in the education context.
The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission was convened in recognition of the disruption the pandemic caused to university life, and to pool the sector’s insight on what students would need in the years ahead to enable their future success.
The interim report, Turbocharging the Future in September 2021 was clear that the pandemic had an impact on students’ confidence, engagement, and mental health, that students from poorer backgrounds and non-traditional students had suffered the worst effects, and that “belonging” was now a focal point for universities’ future plans:
Student engagement has long been a challenge for universities but the crisis appears to have crystallised the concept of ‘belonging’ as a more inclusive and affiliative framing of the idea. Many universities will be thinking hard about how to foster this sense of belonging.
In the autumn of 2021 Wonkhe and Pearson conceived the idea of a year long study of student belonging and inclusion, to contribute to the national conversation and support the sector in its efforts to apply the lessons of the pandemic and “build back” student experience and engagement.
During November 2021 in partnership with 15 students’ unions, 13 in England, one in Scotland, and one in Wales, we distributed a student survey on belonging and inclusion, achieving 5,233 responses with a good demographic spread.
Here we share what we found – and you can download the full deck of findings here.
A caveat about our data: the sample was self-selecting, derived from 15 universities (each of which will have their own distinct student demographic profile and academic culture), and has not been weighted. We believe the size and spread of the sample is sufficient to generate meaningful insight relating to differences within the cohort of respondents, and to shed light on the experience and perceptions of the wider student population, but we’d caution against drawing fixed conclusions about the whole UK student population from our data.
For some demographics the overall sample was comparatively small – specifically, trans-identified (N=114) and non-binary (N=148) respondents and for students who define as a sexuality other than heterosexual, bisexual or gay or lesbian (N=198). We felt that given the very small numbers of these students enrolled at individual universities and the associated challenge of gathering representative data it would be valuable to report on their perspectives.
We’re also collecting monthly diary entries from students on an anonymous basis, and planning student focus groups to explore some of the themes that are emerging. We’re keen to hear your feedback and suggestions for next steps, and we’ll continue to work with our partner students’ unions to inform how the project develops and ensure it is tapping into students’ concerns and lived experiences and generating actionable insight.
Mental health is the key to belonging (or vice versa)
Overall 69 per cent of respondents agree they belong at their university. Just under one in ten (nine per cent) disagree they belong – and it’s this group we report as “students who do not feel they belong.” One in five (22 per cent) neither agree nor disagree.
Our survey explored a range of possible dimensions of the experience of belonging – feeling “settled in”, personal priorities and academic confidence, the way the course is run, sense of connection on the course, connections outside the course (extra-curricular activities), inclusion on the course, connection to the university, inclusion in the university, sense of safety, being valued, and empowerment, and feelings of happiness and loneliness – and found clear associations between sense of belonging and all these different factors.
We asked students to self-assess their mental health when they came to university this year. 60 per cent scored themselves six or more out of ten (we refer to this group throughout this article as those with average and above mental health) and the other 40 per cent scored themselves five or lower. When asked if they feel like they belong at university, 80 per of the average and above group agree that they do, compared with 52 per for the group who scored themselves five or lower for mental health.
The overall picture is not one of demographic differences associated with factors like prior education, ethnicity, or gender. In fact, we found the state of students’ self-assessed mental health was most consistently and dramatically associated with their sense of belonging across all the different dimensions we explored – though we can’t say for sure whether belonging influences mental health or whether it’s the other way around.
It’s not that we didn’t find demographic differences for some groups – in particular for students who identify as non-binary, who have a trans identity, those who are gay or lesbian or who define their sexuality in a different way, and disabled students reported differences compared to their cisgendered, non-disabled, or heterosexual counterparts – and we suspect that there may be a direct association with mental health for some of these groups.
We also found that on balance, postgraduate students and international students (two groups for which there is a significant degree of overlap in any case) were generally more positive and expressed a greater sense of belonging across many of the different dimensions. Likewise, there seems to be a modest but consistent effect in the opposite direction for students who study online. Where we’ve seen these effects and variations in experience, we have reported them in our findings.
But the relatively modest differences we found between demographic identity groups compared to the enormous differences found between those who reported poor or declining mental health and those who reported good or improving mental health – and that this trend persisted even where we asked specifically about issues of diversity and inclusion – suggests that sense of belonging, inclusion, identity, and mental health interact in different ways for different students.
Mental health and wellbeing initiatives, and inclusion and equity initiatives conducted in isolation are unlikely to be sufficient to foster belonging. As such we’d suggest they are approached together, with work on mental health and wellbeing paying due attention to equity and inclusion initiatives and vice versa.
Mental health is also not “fixed” to the same extent as some of the other categories – anyone may experience a bout of mental ill-health or the onset or a worsening of a mental health condition at any time – and it’s notable that significant proportions of students who report average or better mental health and/or agree they belong at university still also report feelings of loneliness, self-doubt, and exclusion.
Feelings and confidence
We asked students about general feelings of happiness and loneliness at university, and again found strong alignment between these feelings, sense of belonging and mental health.
68 per cent of respondents agree they feel happy at university, and for those who feel they belong it is 75 per cent – and for those with average and above mental health it is 81 per cent. There is a relatively high reporting of loneliness across the board with 35 per cent of all students saying they feel lonely at university. For those students who feel they belong and those with average and above mental health, 26 per cent say they feel lonely at university.
For those who do not feel they belong, only 19 per cent agree they feel happy at university, and 73 per cent agree they feel lonely. 48 per cent of those with lower than average mental health say they feel happy, and 50 per cent say they feel lonely.
We also asked about academic confidence and “imposter syndrome” or feeling like you doubt your abilities and whether you deserve to be at university. 63 per cent of all respondents agree they feel confident about their academic skills. However, this is much lower among those who do not feel they belong, with just 34 per cent agreeing compared to 72 per cent of those who feel they belong.
Overall, 39 per cent agreed they experience imposter syndrome, but again we see that 68 per cent of those who do not feel they belong admit to feeling this compared to 32 per cent of those who feel they do belong. Arguably one third of these students is still surprisingly high.
There are similar gaps between those with below average mental health – 55 per cent of whom say they have imposter syndrome, compared to 28 per cent of those with average and above mental health. We hypothesise that low confidence/imposter syndrome may be one of the reasons that students may not seek help if they are struggling with their mental health.
These findings speak to the value of weaving mental health and wellbeing support and inclusive practice into every stage of the student lifecycle, especially welcome and transition, but also into courses and extra-curricular activities. Students who self-assessed their mental health as below average were more likely to consider their mental health as a priority alongside academic studies, and were also more than twice as likely as students who rated their mental health average or above to cite mental health support as a factor in how settled they felt at university.
An appreciation at every stage for the interaction between belonging, mental health and academic confidence is also highly valuable – it is easy to see how students can easily get stuck in a negative cycle of loneliness, loss of confidence, deterioriating mental health, and poor academic performance.
Safety, respect and empowerment
The good news (at least for the universities and SUs involved in the survey) is that in general respondents across all demographics report high levels of safety, respect, and security. 80 per cent of students agree “ I feel like I can be myself at university” and 84 per cent agree “I feel I am treated respectfully.” 75 per cent agree they feel they can speak freely at their university.
These measures are still distressingly low for those who do not feel they belong: only 40 per cent agree they feel they can be themselves; 55 per cent agree they are treated respectfully; and 43 per cent agree they are able to speak freely. Though the general picture is that staff and students in universities seem to treat each other pretty well, students who do not feel they belong do not seem to experience their interactions that way.
Agreement is somewhat lower, however, when students are asked whether they feel empowered to act if they see an opportunity to change things for the better: only 57 per cent of all respondents agreed they are empowered; for those who do not belong it is only 29 per cent, and for those with lower than average mental health it is 46 per cent. Again, belonging seems to go hand in hand with empowerment: 67 per cent of those who feel they belong agree they are empowered to act, and 68 per cent of those whose mental health has improved.
Connection to course and university
We looked at students’ connectedness at both course and university level, and while it’s unlikely to surprise many that students’ sense of connection is stronger at course level, it is striking how low the overall numbers are for each.
Only 39 per cent of all respondents agreed they feel a sense of connection to their university community. And while numbers are higher at course level only 55 per cent of all respondents agreed they feel a sense of community with others on their course; 60 per cent agreed there are adequate opportunities to interact with other students on their course; and 57 per cent agreed they have a support network on their course.
We speculate some of this may be pandemic related, but it does speak to a need to prioritise rebuilding community and connection – and indicates that at course level there is probably a stronger base from which to do this work.
This view is borne out in the data on participation in extra-curricular activities which, while frequently a focus of attention for student connection and community, did not appear to be as major a factor in belonging as some other dimensions. 56 per cent of those who feel they belong have taken part in extra-curricular activities, compared to 46 per cent of those who do not feel they belong.
It is notable, however, that among those who have not taken part and feel a sense of belonging around half (51 per cent) say it is because they have not had time to look into those kinds of activities. Whereas among those who have not taken part and who feel they do not belong, only 36 per cent say this, and slightly more (39 per cent) say that they do not feel confident about joining. This suggests that looking at improving inclusion and lowering barriers to participation may be important for extra-curricular provision.
Participation in student groups and societies is noticeably higher among non-binary, trans, disabled and bisexual students, and those who define themselves by another sexuality, suggesting that students in these groups actively seek out support and connection in extra-curricular opportunities.
Inclusion on the course and at university
We asked about variety and diversity of voices in relation to course content, and about whether respondents felt their course content and teaching style was inclusive ie “help[ing] to create a space in which you feel comfortable and confident to be yourself.”
Here, too, we found associations with sense of belonging and mental health – surprisingly more so than for identity demographics. 69 per cent of all respondents agree their course content includes varied, diverse voices, rising to 78 per cent for those who feel they belong and 74 per cent for those with average and above mental health. Only 48 per cent of those who do not feel they belong agreed to this question, and 63 per cent of those with lower than average mental health.
On inclusive content and inclusive teaching style about half of all respondents in each case agreed that style and content are inclusive consistently across all their modules, and just over a third that content and style are sometimes inclusive, but it is inconsistent across modules. Around one in ten admitted they had not noticed. But only 27 per cent of those who do not feel they belong agree their course content is consistently inclusive, and only 30 per cent agree the style of teaching is consistently inclusive.
Considering inclusion at university level, 59 per cent of respondents agree they would know how to raise an issue of equality, diversity and inclusion at their university, 70 per cent report feeling confident that the issue would be listened to, and 67 per cent that it would be addressed appropriately.
But for those who do not feel they belong, only 40 per cent say they would how to raise an issue of equality, diversity and inclusion at their university, 43 per cent feel confident that the issue would be listened to, and 40 per cent that it would be addressed appropriately. While 77 per cent of all respondents agree that their university values diversity, only 51 per cent of those who do not feel they belong feel this way.
Given we did not explicitly define inclusion in relation to identity characteristics it may not be surprising that we did not see difference on the same scale when we looked at demographics. In these questions, as elsewhere, there are gaps between male or female identified students and non-binary students, between non-disabled and disabled students, between cisgendered and trasn students, and between heterosexual students and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or indntify as another sexuality. All of these warrant further exploration – but they are not in most cases as large as the gaps seen between students with worse than average mental health and those with average and better.
What would help students develop a greater sense of belonging?
When asked what would help students feel a greater sense of belonging, developing closer or more friendships was the most popular choice for all respondents (46 per cent) across all demographic categories – and selected by fully half of those who do not feel they belong, and 48 per cent of those with worse than average mental health.
“Getting to know people on my course better” was a close second at 42 per cent and was selected by 45 per cent of those who do not feel they belong, and 44 per cent of those with lower than average mental health.
Around a fifth of respondents say they want to know more about what the university and SU can offer, and around a third say they think joining societies and clubs would help them belong, though only 20 per cent of those who do not feel they belong agree with this. Around a quarter select “having more time to get used to being at university” and just over a third selected “meeting like-minded people.”
Relatively less popular choices were “getting to know my personal tutor” (18 per cent) and “getting involved in the local community” (9 per cent) – suggesting that closer academic or community connection is not the priority for the students we surveyed – or at least not nearly as much as peer connection.
It’s noticeable that even among those who agree they belong and have better mental health, there’s still an appetite for developing more friendship and connection: 44 per cent of those who agree they belong want more friendships, and 42 per cent of this group say they want to get to know people on their course better. Among those with average and better mental health 41 per cent say they want more or closer friendships and 40 per cent say they want to get to know others on their course better.
This suggests that friendship is a constant and evolving need for everyone, regardless of how secure and connected you already feel; plenty of students would be open to forging closer connections with peers, and there’s surely an opportunity for universities and students’ unions to develop their thinking on how best to enable this.
This article is published in association with Pearson. Click here to download the full survey methodology, demographics, and responses.